Taking the lead

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Taking the lead

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Proceedings of scientific symposiums are often not the most exciting reads. There are frequently full of fascinating and useful information and as such are vital in informing our conservation actions, but the fact remains they are usually written by scientists, for scientists, which means you sometimes need to take a fair bit of time to sift through and identify the key conclusions.

However, you may have noted that the Proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium were published yesterday especially as it was covered extensively on the BBC (for example see here). The Symposium had been organised by Oxford University about this time last year and it brought together a range of experts on the impacts of lead ammunition use on wildlife and human health. I wasn’t able to attend, but several colleagues were in the audience including our Principle Research Biologist, Professor Rhys Green, who contributed two papers.

It has, as I signalled on Monday, been a busy week so I’ve not had time to read and digest all 154 pages of the Proceedings yet. But what is clear is that even on a cursory read, the take home message is absolutely clear: whether you’re from Denmark or Germany, the UK or Sweden; whether you’re an expert on wildlife, human health or ammunition ballistics - the time to phase out lead ammunition is now.  If you have ten minutes, I recommend reading the closing remarks from Professor Ian Newton.  Having summarised the evidence (which includes up to 100,000 waterfowl estimated to die each year from lead poisoning), he concludes,

"There are two approaches towards getting hunters to switch from lead to less toxic alternatives. One is by persuasion; informing them of the facts and hoping they will make the switch themselves. This approach has clearly not worked: witness the continued use of lead shot over wetlands for more than a decade after the 1999 ban; witness the continuing opposition by some hunters and their organisations to restrictions in the use of lead. This leaves us with the only other approach which is mandatory. All other major uses of lead have long been banned or strictly regulated by law, yet this particular use, which provides a direct and important route for lead into the human blood stream, remains unrestricted. Legislation proved necessary in Denmark to cut the use of lead; as in Britain, the dissemination of scientifically-collected findings and appeals to the better nature of hunters had not worked. Danish hunters now accept it, and (as confirmed by surveys) would not go back."

This is encouraging as it tallies with the UK Government’s commitment under a Convention on Migratory Species resolution agreed last year which again sets a clear roadmap to a lead free future. Scientists and policy experts are on the same page on this one. With more science supporting the need for action, we look forward to working with Government and other stakeholders to deliver the necessary change.

And it’s clear that there is an expectant public watching and waiting. An e-petition has been set up asking for an end to lead ammunition use. This could be a further useful contribution to the debate, so please do go and look at this and consider adding your name. Showing Government there is a strong desire for action can only help encourage change which benefits wildlife and people.  The petition is in line with RSPB policy and so we support it.

Proceedings of scientific symposiums might not always be the easiest read. But when scientists, policy experts and the general public are all pointing us in the same direction, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the time for action is now.

  • Interesting, and a worthy petition.

    There is a bigger picture here though. What about clay pigeons? These are full of Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbons's (PAH's) generally - unless biodegradable ones are used - which they aren't as they are inferior quality.

    Clays, couples with lead shot (which can also contain cyanide) is causing large areas or contaminated land in rural areas.

    As temporary shooting sites can operate for less than 28 days without planning permission, these activities are contaminating the countryside unregulated.

    There needs to be a holistic appraisal of the whole industry I think.

  • Martin

    'An expectant public'? 'Pointing in the same direction?' 'In line with policy?' Alas, we are seeing social science seriously neglected in thrusting  forward science as a solution. Yes, there are serious issues with no-compliance but how when some of these issues are promoted by some who would like to ban as much shooting as possible - not the RSPB obviously - a perception from many that do shoot, there are better ways to move this forward.

    This book is key to how we move conservation forward at the grass roots - there is a piece on lead in Denmark. It's a tough read because we are all 'party' to the conflicts www.britishecologicalsociety.org/.../book-review-conflicts-in-conservation-navigating-towards-solutions

    Best, Rob @blackgull

    Ps those that think that removing lead from petrol was the end of things should seek to explore the impact of benzene (unleaded petrol) on invertebrates.... a smoking gun if ever one  

  • As there is a theory that removing lead from petrol led to a fall in violent crime (www.bbc.co.uk/.../magazine-27067615) perhaps banning lead shot would reduce wildlife crime - it's worth a try!

  • Good to see the RSPB supporting this e-petition. The RSPB has played a major part in getting us to this position - but it needs a big push now to make sure that government does the right thing.